Rare vultures poisoned on farm

2013-07-27 00:00

A ROUTINE crane counting exercise turned into a horrifying discovery for wildlife experts when they discovered 48 Cape vultures and one African White-backed vulture dead.

The rare birds had been illegally poisoned on a Swartberg farm in East Griqualand on July 15. Two other Cape vultures were found alive and are being treated for poisoning.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) were conducting a bird census from the air when they spotted a number of dead birds at two sites.

The next day the authorities, accompanied by African Birds of Prey Sanctuary staff, inspected the scene and found an “environmental massacre”.

The rare birds — which are protected by law — were lying dead, apparently after feeding off a number of poisoned sheep carcasses.

After samples were taken, the vulture carcasses were removed as evidence.

The stench of death hung in the air and the wildlife officers found themselves sickened by the scene.

There are only an estimated 5 000 to 8 000 of these birds left in the wild and their numbers are dwindling rapidly. Regularly electrocuted by power pylons, killed for muthi and poisoned, the massive birds of prey are fighting for their survival.

It appeared the vultures died some days apart at each site.

The EWT’s Cobus Theron was horrified by the sight. “This is a huge loss to the local Cape vulture population that will set the species back decades. Had we not flown over the area, no one would have known of the catastrophe that was unfolding here.”

Samples from the birds were found to contain a lethal agricultural poison — carbufuran. The sheep carcasses will now be tested for the same poison.

“Poison is sometimes used in this way to remove predators such as jackal. Such practices are illegal precisely because of the danger they pose to all wildlife and possible human consumption,” said Theron.

African Birds of Prey Sanctuary’s Ben Hoffmann said it was clear that some of the dead vultures had young chicks in nests in the Drakens­berg, which would not survive without both parents’ care. The tragedy could be equated to the killing of as many rhinos in respect of the impact on the species, he said.

Hoffman said he had educated farmers in the Underberg area two years ago to make them aware of the dangers of using poisons.

“Unfortunately the raptors are the ones who suffer the worst as they often eat the poisoned bait left out for other animals, and they eat the rotting carcasses of the animals that have been killed by poison. They become the secondary victims of poison.”

A local farmer said the farm where the birds were found, Hopevale, belonged to Gary Porritt.

Porritt has been in the news for fraud charges since 2002 and was recently involved in a secondary court case where he charged his neighbouring farmers with blocking access to public roads.

Contacted yesterday about the dead vultures, Porritt said he was “too busy” to discuss the matter. He said Weekend Witness could record his comment as being one of “no comment”.

A wildlife official who cannot be named said: “We have opened a case, but it is not clear who will be charged. It is illegal to use poison to kill a protected species and one has to get a special permit to use any poison.

“It is also illegal to use poison for any purpose other than its intended use. These birds are a protected species and that makes this case indefensible.”

• trish.beaver


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